There are a lot of reasons that March Madness feels off this year. The whole thing is happening in Indiana, in mostly-empty buildings. The tournament started on a Friday instead of the traditional Thursday tip. And, of course, there’s no Duke to hate on.
But there’s also something that’s the same, or really a continuation of a trend, that’s been going on for more than a generation. Where it used to be the case that the NCAA Tournament was the showcase of the best players age 22 and younger in the country, that hasn’t been true for a long time.
Some years, that’s no big deal, because there’s a Carmelo Anthony, or a Kevin Durant, or an Anthony Davis who’s already a star before the tournament starts. This year, not only isn’t there such a talent in the men’s college game, but nobody really even had a chance to make a name for himself.
Maybe Cade Cunningham could have done that, but this season was so disjointed and weird, and Oklahoma State doesn’t get a lot of attention in the first place, and less than a month ago, it wasn’t even clear that the Cowboys would be eligible for the postseason.
So here we are, with a tournament that sure is happening, and started with a good deal of excitement on the court, but that also has this feeling of being a shell of itself. A lot of things have felt that way over the past several months of sports, of course, but it’s particularly striking here.
A couple of notes on all that, too: March Madness, of course, only refers to the men’s tournament, as observed by South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley, whose team opens as the top seed in the Hemisfair Region in San Antonio on Sunday, led by sophomore star Aliyah Boston. On the other side of the bracket is No. 1 UConn and its freshman sensation Paige Bueckers, sharing the Mercado Region with defending (on a delayed basis, of course) national champion Baylor. The women’s tournament should be fantastic, once they’ve gotten the players all set with appropriate fitness equipment and meals.
Then, there are the men’s players who aren’t in the tournament. This could have been Ja Morant’s senior year at Murray State. Instead, he’s dropping 360 layups in the NBA.
Luka Doncic is 22, but he was busy spending his high school years playing for Real Madrid and being selected to the EuroLeague’s all-decade team, so college wasn’t really ever an option for him.
For his part, Cunningham didn’t have the best of NCAA Tournament debuts, but he did do his best version of Morant’s 360, and unlike the Grizzlies, his Cowboys got the win over Liberty.